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John TAVENER (b.1944)
Requiem (2008) [34:44]
Mahāshakti for solo violin, tam-tam and strings (2003) [18:22]
Eternal Memory for cello and strings (1991) [9:55]
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano); Andrew Kennedy (tenor); Josephine Knight (cello); Ruth Palmer (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus/Ian Tracey
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. live, world premiere, 28 February 2008, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (Requiem); in session: 15 April 2008, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (Mahashakti; Eternal Memory). DDD
EMI CLASSICS 2351342 [63:02]


Experience Classicsonline

The Tavener Requiem fills just over half of this disc’s sixty three minute playing time. It is clear that EMI are marketing the CD on the strength of the Requiem and that the other two substantial pieces are simply fillers. As is clear reading the reviews of this concert from February 2008 this Requiem was planned and expected to be one of the highlights of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. This recording has been made in association with BBC Radio 3 and documents that world premiere performance given on 28 February 2008.

Composers can be famously terse about their own works and Tavener is no exception. The main body of his description in the liner-notes deals with the philosophical background. This is totally valid but would have benefited from a musical analysis in tandem. Instead we are left as listeners trying to impose a musical ‘meaning’ onto what we are hearing. The BBC engineers had been given an almost insuperable task. The Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool is one of the most beautiful and inspiring modern religious spaces I know. The key to it is its circular form with the altar in the centre beneath an extraordinary glass lantern which in turn is surmounted by an architectural crown. But what one gains visually is lost sonically. Even amongst cathedrals this one has an acoustic where sound washes around and detail is lost in a general blur. Additionally, the echo tends to emphasise the higher part of the audio spectrum. None of which bodes well for a demonstration class recording. Hats off then to engineer Tim Archer for achieving the musical definition and clarity he does. But this is at a price – the reviews make clear that the spatial deployment of the performers was key to the work’s conception. There is not room here to go into detail, enough to say that the forces were deployed in a cruciform manner demanding front to back and left to right dispersal. This is not a SACD disc but it would seem that it would have been an ideal piece for that format. Listening to this disc there is only a very standard left-to-right spread – in fact I would go so far as to say that it is not as stereophonic as most discs – and there is almost no front-to-back depth. On the back cover of the booklet is a picture taken during the performance and if you look very carefully you can see that the important cello soloist is set up on a platform well behind the strings of the orchestra and the two vocal soloists - the brass are further back and to the left in a side chapel. I would not have had any sense of this at all from listening to this disc alone. As mixed to CD the three soloists all occupy the same foreground position. However, understanding the technical problems arising it is superbly handled with the caveat that this must always mean that one’s impression of the ‘spatial theatre’ of the work is limited.

As such I cannot imagine a composer getting a better first performance of a work. The solo writing for both vocalists and the cellist in particular is terrifyingly cruel – high and exposed throughout. Yet clearly all three performers not only sing or play their notes they perform them with an attack, confidence and understanding rare in early performances of any new work. Josephine Knight (cello) repeatedly has to leap to stratospheric heights and every time her intonation is secure, her tone pure. Even when she and soprano Elin Manahan Thomas are doubling musical lines in alt tuning is impeccable. Thomas’s soprano part calls in the main for lyrical ‘passive’ singing and this she achieves with great beauty and the radiance the score requests. In contrast Andrew Kennedy is required to sing with a muscular heldentenor quality again superbly achieved. I do not think I have heard better live performance of such clearly taxing music in a long time. And in this they are ably supported by the massed forces of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir all conducted (or semaphored as one concert reviewer put it – you can understand why in the circumstances) by the rising star conductor Vasily Petrenko.

Whether the work itself has lasting worth I am not sure. The choice of the title Requiem seems somewhat arbitrary. For sure some of the text is taken from the Mass for the Dead and Tavener is self-avowedly fascinated by ‘what lies beyond’ but structurally this piece has a mirror form with three movements leading to a central Kali’s Dance which then reverses to the seventh and final movement which seems to owe more to Eastern philosophies than Western religions - so why the western title? My biggest confusion is that I cannot relate some of the musical material to the words being set. There are sequences of swooping cello writing that seems to change little in pitch, dynamic or intensity regardless of the words being sung. Ritualistic bells chime periodically and frequently throughout the whole piece. One guesses that they are marking out specific passages of time but this is not clear from listening alone. Likewise there are eighteen ‘additional singers’ named. Given the superlative quality of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir one can only suppose they fulfilled a semi-chorus role but again one would have had no idea of this on the evidence of one’s ear’s alone. The central pivotal movement Kali’s Dance/Dies Irae erupts into an extended sequence of rasping trombones and stuttering trumpets. Briefly for the only time in the entire performance there seems to be some issues with co-ordination of the disparate musical groups. On either side of this movement are two movements named The Still Point which are as beautiful as they are simple and brief. To me this is where Tavener is at his best – I am not often convinced that his preference for large forms and time-frames is matched by his ability to produce musical material that can stretch convincingly across those spans.

The same is true of both of the other works on this disc; the eighteen minute two movement Mahāshakti for solo violin, tam-tam and strings and Eternal Memory – a ten minute work for cello and strings. Back in the neutral acoustic of the Philharmonic Hall much more detail can emerge from naturally balanced strings. The violin soloist is Ruth Palmer who proves to be accurate and technically competent without offering much in the way of personality. I have to admit to my attention wandering during this piece although Tavener in his note says that “the music is both rapturous and hieratical”. I’m sure an analytical study would illuminate many of the subtleties and nuances contained but for the average listener with only the evidence of his ears to go on it does seem to meander. 

A liner-note niggle here – her biography states; “Ruth Palmer projects [a] powerful personality and sincere musicianship. Her distinctive tone and honest approach……” etc. Which, to my mind, begs the question; do some players therefore have a dishonest approach or are guilty of insincere musicianship? In other words – don’t write sweeping statements that actually mean nothing. It smacks of a publicist’s puff and does not do her any service. 

The final work is Eternal Memory featuring the excellent Josephine Knight again. First performed in 1992 by Steven Isserlis it is clearly a companion piece to Tavener’s celebrated The Protecting Veil of four years earlier. Clearly at this time Tavener was still in the thrall of the Russian Orthodox Church and the work would appear to be based on chants from this church. Once again the liner-notes - which are in fact a straight reprint of the description of the piece on Novello’s – Tavener’s publisher – website - provide no elaborating information beyond the spiritual concepts that inspired the piece. It was only after about the third listen through that I finally realised that the opening chord sequence is in fact a close cousin of the opening of the 1812 Overture which is indeed based on the Russian Orthodox Troparion of the Holy Cross ("God Preserve Thy People"). As such it makes for a beautiful opening but even Knight with her earthy tone and secure technique can make little of this piece. Several rather limp canonic episodes try to inject some energy into proceedings but once these figures have passed around the string orchestra in desultory fashion they peter out. 

Sir John Tavener composes in a unique and personal style which speaks movingly to many. Unfortunately, I find it does not speak to me and I am sure that is my loss. These performances are clearly as committed and passionate as one could hope to hear and for those already acolytes to the Tavener cause now further prompting is necessary. 

A CD of characteristic Tavener in exemplary performances displaying his strengths and weaknesses depending on the listener’s point of view.

Nick Barnard

see also Review by Rob Barnett 



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